FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — One night in training camp, when meetings were finished and the players had free time, quarterback Zach Wilson popped into Robert Saleh’s office with a question. He always has questions, as the New York Jets quickly learned about their rookie signal-caller. On this visit, which started at 7 p.m., he asked his coach to explain the differences between the Jets’ three-deep zone and the way other teams run it.
A 22-year-old who prefers X’s and O’s over Xbox. Imagine that.
The defensive-minded Saleh dived into it, explaining the nuances of his beloved Cover 3 scheme. The conversation switched to Cover 4, and soon they were breaking down various pressure schemes, the first-year coach and the rookie quarterback talking the night away.
“Then we got into life,” Saleh told ESPN. “The conversation went a million different ways, but that was his curiosity, asking questions and trying to piece together information.”
At one point, Saleh glanced at the clock and it was past 11. Their conversation had gone longer than a football game.
“Dude, you have to go back to the room and get some sleep,” Saleh told Wilson. Saleh, too, was tired and wanted to go home.
The coach and the No. 2 overall draft pick are five months into their working relationship. If all goes according to plan, they will be having late-night conversations into the 2030s.
This is a new era of Jets football, with Saleh and Wilson the fresh faces of the franchise — one that is tired of being kicked around. Their respective jobs are among the toughest in sports. The Jets haven’t reached the postseason in 10 years, the longest active drought in the NFL — a streak of woe that has chewed up some promising coaches and quarterbacks.
Saleh and Wilson are the next men up, facing the enormous challenge of trying to flip a franchise.
“It’s tough, for sure, but I’m glad I have him,” Wilson told ESPN. “I feel like he’s a guy I can lean on and I hope he can lean on me when those times get tough and we can go through the whole thing together. … We’re going to learn about every situation that comes up, him as the head coach, me as a player. And we’ll get better with time.”
The first-year head coach/rookie-quarterback dynamic isn’t an every-year thing in the NFL. From 2000 to 2020, there were 10 instances in which a rookie started in Week 1 for a first-time head coach, most recently in 2019 with the Arizona Cardinals (Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray). The Jacksonville Jaguars are doing it this season with Urban Meyer and 2021 No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence, although Meyer has extensive head coaching experience on the college level.
Immediate success is rare; improvement is not.
Since 1970, teams that started the season with a coach with no head-coaching experience and a quarterback with no starting experience have made the playoffs four times, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Interestingly, all four occurred in the 2008 to 2012 window — John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco with the Baltimore Ravens (2008); Mike Smith and Matt Ryan with the Atlanta Falcons (2008); Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez with the Jets (2009); and Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck with the Indianapolis Colts (2012).
Tedy Bruschi shocks Mike Greenberg by choosing Jets QB Zach Wilson as his top candidate for NFL Rookie of the Year.
Of the past 10 teams to try this coach-quarterback combo, seven saw an increase in wins from the previous season and three remained the same. One of the three was the Jets, who managed to reach the AFC Championship Game in 2009.
Rex Ryan, also a member of Harbaugh’s staff in 2008, said the key to winning with a rookie quarterback is protecting the player. That can be done, he said, by featuring the running game and creating game plans that revolve around the defense and special teams. He believes the current Jets, projected by Vegas to win six games, “will surprise some people.” He noted Saleh’s track record as a defensive coach and spoke highly of Wilson’s potential.
“He’s super talented,” Ryan said. “I think the Jets hit on the quarterback. Time will tell, but I think this kid’s got a chance. I think the kid’s going to be good, I really do.”
Saleh would’ve been content with Sam Darnold, but he was smitten by Wilson’s cerebral approach. It started with Zoom interviews during the pre-draft process and it continued through training camp. He said Wilson’s most impressive moments aren’t on the field, but in the meeting room, where he quizzes coaches (even defensive coaches), logs big minutes on his tablet and uses a unique method for watching tape on his own. Sometimes they have to tell him to go home and rest.
For Saleh, it wasn’t love at first sight.
“It was a buildup,” Saleh said. “You watch tape and you’re like, ‘This guy is pretty good.’ Then you watch more tape and you’re like, ‘Man, this guy is really good.’ The arm talent is undeniable. Then you get to the Zoom meetings and then you talk to him about film and it’s, ‘Holy s—!’ for lack of a better word. It’s like, ‘Holy cow! This dude is incredible — his recall, his conversation, his knowledge.’
“It was uncanny, in our opinion, and you fell in love with that. Then you start having conversations and talking to people. His ability to get to the sideline and talk about everything he saw so he can process and fix things on the sideline, it was amazing. He didn’t have to wait to get to the phone. He’s got a unique ability in that sense.”
Saleh made his bones on the defensive side of the ball, so there’s a limit to how much he can teach Wilson about the quarterback position. Wilson spends most of his time with offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, but his relationship with Saleh can’t be overstated. The coach-quarterback dynamic is vital to the success of every team. Wilson said it’s important for them to be in sync when it comes to messaging with regard to culture and expectations.
They probably won’t have a ton of alone time during the season, but Saleh believes in an open-door policy. He pulls players into his office to chat, to hear what’s on their minds and to get a feel for the heartbeat of the team. He expects to have plenty of those sit-downs with Wilson.
“Those conversations will definitely be had,” Saleh said.
Wilson said, “We have a relationship like that. I just like going into his office and talking ball. They’re always cool conversations because he’s such a smart guy. He’s not the kind of guy that’s going to scream at you, but he’s going to get you going when the time is needed. I think that’s what he does best.”
In one of their earliest conversations, Saleh used a cereal-eating analogy to describe the art of quarterbacking. It went something like this: If a quarterback has a firm grasp of the offense, he should be able to sit in front of a TV, eat cereal and read/understand the playbook without having to think about raising the spoon to his mouth and chewing. It should happen naturally.
That resonated with Wilson. Now the trick is to make sure he can be Cap’n Crunch on game day. The first test is Sunday’s Week 1 game (1 p.m. ET, CBS) at the Carolina Panthers, whose quarterback is Darnold.
Unlike some rookies, who must learn how to learn, Wilson arrived with his own process. When he studies the opponent, he sorts the film cut-ups in a different fashion than other quarterbacks. His unusual filtering method caught the attention of coaches and teammates, including guard Greg Van Roten, who said he had never seen it done quite that way.
“He’s a rookie in name only,” Van Roten said.
Wilson watches full games early in the week and adds more situational cut-ups as the week progresses, basically going into information-overload mode. Eventually, he streamlines.
“At the end of the week, my process is, how can I give myself one to two things that are going to simplify the game for me and going to tell me exactly what’s going on by one thing?” Wilson said. “You sit here now and have all day to diagnose what’s going on. On the field, you have a couple seconds and you don’t want to be sitting out there and overthinking anything.”
Wilson played mistake-free football in two of the Jets’ preseason games, but growing pains are inevitable. The same goes for Saleh. While he’s not calling plays for Wilson, Saleh’s ability to navigate the ups and downs of having a rookie quarterback will greatly impact the team.
Recent history suggests defensive-minded coaches have more success with rookies than offensive head coaches. Ryan, Pagano and Smith were defensive coaches; Harbaugh came up as a special teams coach. Ryan, Smith and Harbaugh had excellent defenses when their quarterbacks were rookies, and they played to that strength by running more than passing. Pagano was the outlier; he basically let Luck run the show (627 pass attempts in 2012).
From all indications, Saleh, too, will try to emphasize the ground game, although his defense — unproven in key areas — is nowhere close to the aforementioned teams. It could put a lot of pressure on Wilson, and it will be on Saleh to manage that.
Strategy aside, Saleh has reenergized the fan base after last season’s 2-14 disaster under former coach Adam Gase. Ryan, who did the same when he came strutting into town in 2009, believes that’s important.
“When Saleh came in, he had them right from the jump,” Ryan said. “He’s got the team and the fan base behind him already because they want something different. He’s got that battle won.”
Saleh has changed everything, from the way players stretch at practice to the vibe in the building. His mantra — “All gas, no brake” — is etched into the glass door at the entrance of the facility. He lets his coaches coach, trying to stay out of positional meetings as much as possible. He doesn’t want to interfere, so sometimes he watches the meetings from his office via video technology. He learned that from former NFL coach Mike Shanahan.
“I mean this in the nicest way possible,” Jets center Connor McGovern said. “The Jets’ previous head coaches have been gurus. They [relied] on X’s and O’s and we’re going to beat you with the better scheme. Saleh says we’re going to beat you because we work harder and play with higher effort. He’s what I would call a leader of men. He doesn’t think X’s and O’s win football games. He knows players win the games.”
His most important player is a 22-year-old gunslinger with a maniacal work ethic who likes to talk and ask questions. Many late nights await them.